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Restoring the synagogue of Hania Island of Crete, Greece - 12.99

In 1996, World Monuments Fund in New York City selected the synagogue of Hania as one of 100 endangered structures of cultural and historic importance. The list of selected projects included among other structures the Hagia Sofia, the Taj Mahal, the Paradesi synagogue in Cochin, India, synagogues in Cracow, Poland, and Fez, Morocco. 
 The Etz Hayim, or "tree of life", synagogue in Hania was once the center of Crete’s substantial Jewish community. A nineteenth century census listed more than 1,000 Jews in Crete, concentrated primarily in Hania. 
 The synagogue is the only surviving Jewish monument on Crete, which lost its entire Jewish population in 1944. Nazis occupying the island of Crete ordered Hania’s remaining 269 Jews into the synagogue, and in the morning, they were put aboard a ship on the first leg of a journey to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Halfway to the mainland, the vessel Danae was hit by British torpedoes and sank. There were no survivors. Another 600 Greek and Italian prisoners perished with them. Hania Jews are amongst the over 90 percent of Greece’s 80,000 Jews, who perished in Nazi death camps. Today fewer than 5,000 remain. 
 The fifteenth-century stone building was originally the Roman Catholic church of St. Catherine built by the Venetians. German shells damaged the synagogue in 1941. After the war, squatters occupied the former synagogue until even they abandoned the building. 
 The synagogue relates to Venetian buildings of the fifteenth century, when the stone building was erected as a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Catherine. Venetians, who then dominated the island, built it, as we may guess from their characteristically arcuated wall. The building was converted to Jewish use in the late seventeenth century. Numerous Hebrew inscriptions document its later history. For example, an inscription over an archway begins: "May it be His will to forgive". 
 The interior fittings and decorations of the synagogue have been destroyed. Abandoned for fifty years the building has fallen into ruin. An earthquake in 1994 accelerated the deterioration, seriously damaging the building’s northeast corner. 
"When I touch the walls of the synagogue, I feel a connection to a Jewish past here that was once so rich", Nicholas Stavroulakis, founder and director Emeritus of the Jewish Museum of Greece, said, standing before the building’s pale yellow walls in the port’s former Jewish quarter. Workers have straightened and fortified the walls of the synagogue and built a new roof. The next project is to restore the women’s section and the mikveh, or ritual bath. Also under way are efforts to fashion doors made from native chestnut and control limestone rot eating away at the facade. 
 Stavroulakis estimates he needs about another $100,000 to meet his goal of rededicating the synagogue by March. He keeps the synagogue’s new Torah on a desk in his bedroom. Much of the nearly $400,000 raised so far has come from outside Greece through private donors and organizations, including the Rothschild Foundation and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. The mayor of Great Neck, NY, Robert Rosegarten, visited the site and is spearheading the fund-raising effort in the New York area. 

For further information on this project: 

The World Monuments Fund 
Attn: Dr. John Stubbs, or Dr. S. Gruber 
949 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10028 USA 


Nicholas Stavroulakis, project coordinator 
P.O.Box 251, Hania 73110, Crete, Greece 
Phone and Fax: +30 (821) 70-397 

Elias Messinas is the editor of Kol haKEHILA.


mail to: KOL haKEHILA